29th Jul 2012 - 4th Aug 2012
Victoria on the Rock
The Michelin Green Guide for Canada told us that Vancouver Island, or more particularly Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is “Worth a Journey”. After spending three days there, we entirely agree.
Our plans were to catch the ferry to “The Rock” as the captain of the boat called it, spend a few nights in Victoria, then take a bus to Nanaimo, stay there a couple of nights before returning to Vancouver. It took us 6 hours to get from North Vancouver to Victoria. It’s less than 40 miles, but the journey is quite torturous, comprising three buses, a train and a ferry. The ferry trip was excellent – the boats from and to Victoria pass one another at the narrowest part of a channel between two islands - which somehow highlights the beautiful scenery that’s all around. Dare we say that, in many ways, it was better than the best we’d seen from the stern of the MS Zuiderdam…
We’d booked 3 nights at the Embassy Inn right next door to the Parliament House, in the heart of Victoria. Talking of ‘heart’, the dawn chorus at the Embassy Inn was quite unlike any other. Here, thanks to the breakfasts, the sun rises to the sound of arteries hardening. The restaurant at this fine establishment put us very much in mind of a geriatrics day-care centre and, at first glance, the breakfast menu appeared to offer a small, but good, choice of dishes. On closer inspection, it was interesting to note that, in spite of the names, they were all just simple variations based on the core ingredients of fried potatoes and eggs. The main choices were; “Light”: eggs and hash browns; “American”: eggs, hash browns and bacon; “Peppered Pastrami”: eggs, hash browns, fried pastrami, onion and peppers; and my favourite; “The Farmer’s”: eggs, hash browns, bacon and sausage. All came with buttered toast and optionally a portion of fruit. Three 3 tiny pieces of melon and half a strawberry hardly count as a portion, let alone one of your ‘five-a-day’.
Wading through my plate of cholesterol one morning, Stephanie asked, “How’s your Farmers?” I replied that they were much better, thanks to the ointment.
Victoria is a very pleasant little city, named after the great monarch himself . It’s full of Victorian-era buildings (what else!), topped off by the palace that is the Parliament of British Columbia. The city itself is centred on the Inner Harbour, which bustles with the activity of private boats, seaplanes and ferries; although not, unfortunately, the ones that run directly to and from Vancouver. The place was, and still appears to be, a wealthy city.
At one end of the Inner Harbour is a grassy bank with flowers grown to spell out the words, “Welcome to Victoria”. It’s a shame that the city planners didn’t pass a by-law banning the local pikies from setting up grubby little stalls, selling carvings, bad paintings and other crap, right in front of the floral greeting!
We took a trip to Butchart Gardens, which has some excellent, well, gardens. The Michelin Guide rates the place as “Worth a Journey”; in our opinion it was only just about worth the 90 minute round-trip bus ride and was very expensive. The next day, we had a look around the gardens of the Governor’s House, just a 20 minute walk from our hotel, which, although not as extensive, were a backpacker’s delight – free admission!
In common with many seaside places, there’s a Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria. It’s a nice enough walk round the seafront from the town centre and basically comprises a few pontoons with houseboats and shopboats (new word) moored to them. One of these floating enterprises is The Fish Store, which is a shack on the water containing a kitchen, a few fridges and a cash register. That evening, it was warm enough to eat al fresco, but after reading the menu, I decided to go for the locally caught mussels. We sat at a communal table under a gazebo roof and ate a dish (actually a cardboard take-away box), of the finest mussels I’ve ever tasted. Anywhere.
We’d booked a couple of seats on a Greyhound to get from Victoria to Nanaimo. When we got to the bus station, we were told that the greyhounds weren’t running that day, but that a coach was available. ‘Express’ seemed a somewhat optimistic term for a journey that was scheduled to take 2 hours to complete 112km, but once we set out, all became clear. The first part of the road from Victoria is a dual carriageway, but in common with the rest of the route, it was a forest of (mainly red) traffic lights. It was then that we thanked our lucky stars we hadn’t chosen to rent a car - it’s much easier to put up with the tedium of stop-start motoring when someone else is behind the wheel!
The journey passed without incident and, at a few points along the way, offered some excellent views of the coastal scenery. We did however miss the ‘special’ passenger whose company we enjoyed so much on our trip from Seattle!
Arriving at the, frankly scruffy, Nanaimo bus station just over two hours after leaving the bustling little city of Victoria felt like a step back in time and down a few notches. Although it had only been a couple of weeks since our last (relatively) long distance bus journey, we’d forgotten the little nuances that make them, er, ‘special’. Things like the other passengers and the smell of the bus station (like an old-folks home with just a splash more piss). Also, whilst on that theme, the excellent design of a toilet cubicle where you HAVE to raise the seat in order to shut the door. It takes a skilled plumber to position the china that accurately.
First impressions of Nanaimo are that, like its neighbour, it has a very attractive and active harbour, but that the town itself was nowhere near as wealthy. This impression was given a bit more credence by a comment in the visitor information booklet referring to its “roll-up-your-sleeves working class backbone” (which I infer to mean ‘origins’). Unlike Victoria, which, having been the seat of British Columbia’s government since the mid-1800’s, has had all the money and attention.
The harbour was, like Victoria’s, bustling with all manner of floating transportation and once again great for a plane-spotter thanks to all the seaplane activity. We took a little ferry ride across to Protection Island and were amused that the ferry company have taken note of the rule, “Exit Through The Gift Shop”. In this case, the Gift Shop was a waterside pub that served a very nice pint of Vancouver Island beer, which was most welcome before setting out on the hike around the island. We got bored halfway round and took a shorter cut back to the ferry, but we guessed that you could walk every last inch of the road network here in about an hour. Apart from two small ‘parks’, all of its one and a half square miles is divided up into private building plots and, from our little stroll, it seems that about a third of these are up for sale. The island’s population move around mostly on golf-carts (outdoors anyway), and we got the impression that clocks on Protection Island tick very slowly indeed…
Nanaimo also has a kind of Fisherman’s Wharf, complete with fish and chip shop with picnic tables, but we reasoned that it couldn’t be anywhere near as good as the one in Victoria. So, rather than a dinner of seafood served with harbour views, we found ourselves eating very acceptable lamb kebabs outside a middle-eastern style café with a marvellous vista of filling station and traffic lights…
We travelled back from Nanaimo the next day, directly to downtown Vancouver, by seaplane. To kill the couple of hours between hotel check-out and aircraft check-in, we had lunch on the patio of the Lighthouse Bistro and Pub. Neither the photos of this place, nor our lunch there, tally with the pictures and descriptions on Trip Advisor. Firstly, the weather was perfect, as it had been all the time we were on the Island. Secondly, the steak and eggs brunch contained one of the best bits of cow I’d ever eaten. And last, but by no means least, all that fine weather had brought out all manner of water-borne craft to entertain us whilst we ate.
We won’t bore you with details of our short flight back to the heart of Vancouver – oh, alright then, if you insist. Roy got to sit up front alongside the pilot, which meant a great view and the chance to don a headset and chat to him. Asked about his flying career, he replied, “This is it for me. I live in Victoria, I’m home every night for dinner. I fly 6 or so island hops each day, plus a couple of sightseeing tours – what more do I want?” Put like that, being paid for doing something that many people do for fun, it seemed like a pretty good career plan!
For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, in normal conditions they fly from the Island at 500ft, and from the mainland at 700ft. If the weather’s poor, they can fly as low as 200ft – but never in fog. All at an indicated airspeed of 120mph and probably invisible to YVR’s radar most of the time. Great fun!